Why Software Projects Fail: Lack of Communication

Ward Andrews
By Ward Andrews
Cover Image for Why Software Projects Fail: Lack of Communication

There is one fundamental reason many software projects fail - because we're all human. In this month’s series of blog posts, we’re taking a deeper look at three human factors to consider in your software projects. For more, check out the series overview post, learn how lack of empathy can lead to failure, and examine how to plan better for your projects.

We’ve seen many projects fail because one hand didn’t know what the other was doing. We’ve seen others fail because business leaders had one set of goals, while the product team was executing toward completely different objectives.

At a time when we’re more spread out than ever, communication has become more important - and complicated - than ever. We’re finding our way through the wilderness with countless new tools.

We’re all getting more familiar chatting with each other through boxes on our screens, and managing our Pavlovian response to the Slack notification sound.

But communication starts and ends with people. And the confusion between those two end points is often where the failure begins.

Research by the Project Management Institute has found that among companies with highly effective communication, 80% of projects met their goals, compared to just a 52% project success rate for organizations with minimal communication.

Here are a few things to keep in mind to help make sure you’re communicating effectively.

Effective Project Communication Starts at the Top

As with most things, leadership plays a critical role in establishing the rules of the game and setting expectations for how your team will communicate and collaborate. Executive leaders who are actively engaged with specific project teams can bridge the gap between strategy and execution, making sure that everybody is on the same page from the leadership suite to the frontline customer service representative.

Project managers also play a key leadership role as the fulcrum point between executive business stakeholders and the project team. Honesty and transparency are key in both directions as the business needs to know the harsh realities of budget overruns or scope creep, and the project team needs consistent and honest updates about deadlines and progress.

With strong leaders at the top communicating honestly and effectively, the problems that inevitably arise can be addressed more efficiently and effectively by the team working together with the same information.

Keep Your Communication Human

We’ve seen too many project teams and organizations go out of their way to try to standardize communications with fancy software that promises to keep your team connected through things like automated push notifications.

The problem with many of these tools is they remove the people from the communication. This leads to missed context and poor retention of the information that’s being delivered. You’re far more likely to remember a Slack conversation with a real person than you are to remember an automatic notification about an edit to a Google doc.

Never underestimate the importance of emotion, personal relationships, and context in how your team communicates. Sensitive topics are almost always better handled face-to-face (even if those faces are through digital video) because there are contextual clues like body language and facial expressions that just can’t be replicated through other mediums.

Keeping your communication as human as possible will cut down on the misunderstandings that can undercut even the best project plans.

Stay Disciplined in Your Communication

While you want a free-flowing exchange of ideas and information, there are also times when you need to make sure you’re using communication to reinforce overall project discipline and efficiency. It’s easy to lose precious time generating fun ideas that will never see the light of day or brainstorming problems that are best handled with a small group of subject matter experts.

Discipline keeps your project on track and in scope and increases how efficiently your team gets the core job done so they can have more time for fun projects on the side.

What does communication discipline look like? Here are a few examples that probably sound pretty familiar:

  • Streamlined Meetings: Set a clear goal and agenda, invite the least number of people necessary for each meeting, and get out on time or plan to regroup later.

  • Thorough Documentation: Software projects kick out a lot of different types of work, from research findings, to design templates, to the actual code. Build a process to capture the most important information so new team members can get up to speed quickly when you inevitably have to swap people in and out of the project.

  • Consistent and Timely Updates: Whether you do it through regular meetings or written communications (or both), set a schedule and a method and stick to it so everybody on the project team knows where they can go for the latest updates and when they can expect it.

  • Establish Ground Rules: Every project team needs to collaborate on some level. It’s important to set ground rules upfront about how the team wants to give and receive feedback, the tools that will be used, and the etiquette around using those tools. The earlier and more comprehensively you set these ground rules, the less confusion and anger you’ll stumble across later.

  • Set Clear Escalation Paths: Nothing is more frustrating than needing to push a decision or problem up the ladder and getting blocked by an Out of Office message. Set a clear path for escalations and identify back-ups so there is always somebody available to help prevent things from getting stuck in a vortex.

Let’s Start a Conversation

These are just some of the things we’ve learned in 20 years of working (and communicating) with project teams of all shapes and sizes.

If you’re looking for more tips and tricks, we have some thoughts about how to do better remote work and how to develop what we believe is a core competency of UX design - collaborating and critiquing for growth.

If you’re looking for more hands-on help, let’s talk about how our team can help your team use communication to bring your software project to life.